If edge rushers are supposed to deliver a surprise on the way to the quarterback, then Denzil Ware hit Kentucky football from the blindside last week.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound outside linebacker/defensive end announced via social media that he is leaving the program to play his final collegiate season elsewhere as a graduate transfer.
"Today is bittersweet," the Alabama native wrote, adding, "I will always bleed blue."
Well, not always. And forgive Kentucky fans for asking, 'Haven't we been here before?' After the 2016 season, wide receiver Jeff Badet announced he was leaving Lexington a year early to play his final season at Oklahoma.
At the time, optimists spun Badet's departure as unfortunate but not crippling. UK had decent depth at receiver. Talented freshmen were on the way. Then Dorian Baker dislocated an ankle during a preseason scrimmage and didn't return The freshmen failed to make much of a mark.
Badet's absence showed up in the stats. As a junior, the speedy receiver led the Cats with 670 receiving yards on 31 catches for an impressive 21.6 yards per grab average. Four of Badet's receptions went for touchdowns. Without Badet, UK's leading receiver was Garrett Johnson, who gained 539 yards on 48 receptions, an average of 11.2 yards per catch. Johnson scored two touchdowns.
Plus, with Badet in 2016, Kentucky was a deep-ball threat, completing seven passes for 50 or more yards, including five for 60-plus and three for 70-plus. Last year, UK completed three passes for 50 or more yards, including one of 60-plus.
We're not predicting the same drastic drop-off on the defensive side without Ware. After all, the starting outside linebacker/defensive end on the other side of the defense is UK's best player. Most way-too-early mock NFL 2019 mock drafts have senior-to-be Josh Allen as a first-round selection. ESPN's Todd McShay has Allen as the 27th overall pick in his first mock.
Still, Ware's departure has to hurt. Starting six of 12 games last season, Ware recorded 6.5 sacks, bringing his career total at UK to 13. College football guru Phil Steele dubbed Ware as a third-team All-SEC selection for 2017. He started 30 games in his three years at Kentucky.
Not exactly a wallflower, Ware could sometimes let his emotions get the best of him. He was involved in the near-melee during the first quarter of the 44-17 home loss to Louisville and missed the 24-23 loss to Northwestern in the Music City Bowl because of a suspension.
Still, for a program such as Kentucky, it hurts to teach and develop a player for four years — Ware redshirted in 2014 — only to see him leave when his maturity and experience are expected to be at their peak.
That's especially true for an edge rusher, whose importance has increased with (a) more teams passing the football and (b) utilizing spread offenses that make the ends responsible for the quarterback on zone-read rushes and the popular RPOs, run-pass options.
Head coach Mark Stoops does have replacement possibilities at the spot. Boogie Watson is a promising sophomore-to-be who has also seen time at inside linebacker. Josh Paschal showed flashes of big-time potential as a true freshman last year at the spot, but was moved inside to defensive line during spring practice. Paschal could end up back outside.
All in all, though, the Ware departure is not the offseason news you want if you're Kentucky, a program perpetually in search of depth. Where an Alabama or a Georgia can just plug and play with another five-star talent, the Cats don't enjoy the same luxury. UK needs more good players, not less.
Plus, on paper anyway, this was to be the year Stoops' defense needed to finally strut its stuff. After slipping from 59th to 85th to 92nd in total defense the last three years, surely UK would improve in 2018, thanks to 10 starters returning.
Kentucky football 2018 schedule